Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, is a bit of a dandy — every bit. As he strides through the swank, cavernous Budapest lobby, this aristocrat of the servant class carries himself with perfect posture and a distinct cologne known as eau de panache. His only bequeathable treasures are “a set of ivory-backed hair brushes and my library of romantic poetry,” whose contents he can quote at length to suit any occasion, either tender (“The painter’s brush touched the inchoate face by ends of nimble bristles …”) or dire (“A moist black ash dampens the filth of a dung-dark rat’s nest and mingles with the thick scent of wood rot …”).
His good looks may have calcified in middle age — glancing at his passport photo, he ruefully insists, “I was once considered a great beauty” — but Gustave remains irresistible to the hotel’s endless retinue of “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blond, needy” doyennes and returns their devotion with his sexual attention; as he explains, “I go to bed with all my friends.” One of these is the 84-year-old Madame Celine Villeneuve Desguffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton), who, Gustave avers, “was dynamite in the sack.” When he learns of her sudden death, he leaves immediately for her castle, fervently kissing Madame’s rouged corpse and cooing, “You’re looking so well, darling! I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue, but I want some.”
Love and death, romance and horror, comedy and tragedy duel to an elegant draw in Wes Anderson’s rich torte of a movie — perhaps the most seductively European film ever made by a kid from Houston. The Anderson world has always been enclosed, an exquisite miniature simulacrum of the real or movie world. His camera style, showing figures in an unmoving frame, and reaction shots at a regimental 90- or 180-degree angle, mimics the viewing of museum installations by a fascinated robot. In rooms or exteriors of impossibly precise ornamental detail, the sense of the writer-director’s control is complete.
Often, in these ornate spaces, his films’ characters burst into quirky humanity, as they did in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom and the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. In other Anderson films — The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited — the air can be stifling and the “people” are windup toys he forgot to crank or dolls so stuffed with notions, not emotions, that they come apart rather than come to life. All those successes and near misses were dry runs for The Grand Budapest Hotel, his masterpiece. A dizzyingly complex machine whose workings are a delight to behold, the movie has a wry smile for frailties, a watchful eye for tyranny and a heart that — under the circumstances of this dark, fanciful tale — must be called heroic.
(MORE: Corliss’s review of Moonrise Kingdom)
We mean a tale within a tale within a tale. The movie, which Anderson wrote from a sketch that he and Hugo Guinness prepared some years back, begins in the present — a girl leaving a tribute at the statue of a famous deceased author, “Our national treasure” — and promptly flashes back to 1985, when the author (Tom Wilkinson) introduces the story we will see dramatized. His voice-over tells us it is 1968, when his younger self (Jude Law) visited the Grand Budapest and met its owner, M. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). To the young author, Moustafa relates his memory of Gustave beginning in 1932. Each period is framed in a different aspect ratio: variations of widescreen for the more modern scenes, the classic 1:33 for the ’30s. When the political tone turns toxic at the climax, the glamorous color scheme shifts to ominous monochrome.
Like a child with a giant chest of playthings and a boundless imagination, Anderson has dreamed up an entire, teeming country: the former Republic of Zubrowska, located “on the farthest eastern boundary of the European continent.” He knows its capital (Lutz), its currency (klubeks), its highest elevation (Gabelmeister’s Peak) and the curious diseases that befall its citizens (the Prussian grippe and scribe’s fever, “a form of neurasthenia common among the intelligentsia of the time”). The thugs who seize power in Zubrowska wear not the swastika or hammer and sickle but lightning-bolt ZZs. All the particulars in this parallel land — this imaginary but sociologically pertinent Eastern Europe of the 1930s — are Anderson’s invention. So, it appears, are the poetry excerpts that Gustave declaims to his apprentice, the lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori).
A refugee from a Mideastern country at war, Zero learns his vocation directly from Gustave, who instructs that “a lobby boy is completely invisible yet always in sight.” He is to anticipate the whim of all guests and to realize that “their deepest secrets, some of which are frankly rather unseemly, will go with us to our graves.” Zero, so young he must pencil in his thin mustache each morning, is old enough to fall in love: with sturdy, ethereal Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who works in Herr Mendl’s pastry shop and who has, as Gustave notes, “an enormous birthmark in the shape of Mexico over half her face.” Soon she and Zero are quoting romantic poetry to each other. To signal his approval of their affair, Gustave gives Agatha a porcelain pendant and “five dozen individually wrapped roses in a box the size of a child’s coffin.” Amour and mortality are forever playing tag through the corridors of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
Zero, now Gustave’s confidant, alerts him to Madame C.V.D.U.T.’s death and accompanies him to her home. When the local attorney Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) announces that a codicil to Madame’s will instructs that Gustave is to receive the priceless painting Boy With Apple, her scurvy son Dmitri (Adrien Brody, never more dashing or saturnine) and his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe, in silky sadist mode) cry foul. Gustave and Zero take the painting and vamoose. The rest of the film is, in bald outline, a caper farce, as Gustave escapes from prison with the help of five inmates (including the elaborately tattooed Harvey Keitel) and our two hoteliers are pursued by Dmitri, Jopling and State Agent Henckels (Edward Norton). Chases commence on trains, motorcycles, skis and dog sled. Kovacs, the lawyer, must flee Jopling while toting his dear, dead, defenestrated cat in a sack. Fingers and a head are severed, from different bodies. The government passes from fascists to communists. Yet the tone of the enterprise remains as sweet and tasty as one of Mendl’s pastries.
Budapest occupies a time and an attitude that have vanished from life and from most fiction. To find its ancient equivalents, you would consult Ernst Lubitsch’s comedies of the ’30s and ’40s (Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be), made in Hollywood but set in Europe, and the ’40s and ’50s dramas directed by Max Ophuls, particularly La Ronde and Letter From an Unknown Woman. That beautiful film, about a roué (Louis Jourdan) who impregnates and then forgets a naive young woman (Joan Fontaine), came from a novella by Stefan Zweig, the Viennese bon vivant whose life and works inspired this movie.
It’s a cinch to deduce that Anderson fell in love with Zweig’s cosmopolitan cosmos — a world full of impeccably dressed charmers and scoundrels, of hearts to be ruthlessly broken or delicately mended. Little remembered today, Zweig, born in 1881, was among the most popular and cherished storytellers of his time — a romantic who flourished between the wars and took the rise of totalitarianism as a personal affront. He died in 1942 after taking sleeping pills with his second wife, Lotte Altmann, leaving a note that read, “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.” When he and Lotte were discovered in their home near Rio, they were holding hands.
(MORE: Our 1942 obit of Stefan Zweig, by subscribing to TIME)
Gustave inherits Zweig’s erect bearing but not his worldview. The writer was an idealist ripe for disillusion; the concierge is a skeptic willing to be surprised by a beneficent gesture. “You see,” he says to Zero when Henckels does him a favor, “there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Civility certainly adheres to Gustave and his fellow members of the Society of the Crossed Keys (Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Wally Wolodarsky and Waris Ahluwalia, plus new recruit Fisher Stevens); the concierges of Europe’s most fashionable hotels are princes serving queens. The guests are their betters, but they are the best.
Having dedicated his life to pampering the wealthy and titled, Gustave is obliged to believe in the morality of manners. Good people behave courteously, and the brutes are brutish. But no brutes are allowed in the Budapest — until, late in the film, they move in and take over. “The beginning of the end of the beginning has begun,” Gustave mourns as he re-enters the hotel, now a military post for the ZZs. “The sad finale played off-key on a broken-down saloon piano in the outskirts of a forgotten ghost town. I’d rather not bear witness to such blasphemy.” (He always had a way with so many words.) As Moustafa observes in 1968, “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”
In a way, Anderson’s gift is greater: to bring such marvelous grace to the creation and execution of a world that not only vanished but also never existed. Produced for about $20 million, with some tax incentives, the movie looks like $200 million — as opposed to, say, Jack the Giant Slayer, which cost $200 million but looked like 20 bucks. Lavishly designed (by Adam Stockhausen) and lovingly shot (by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman) inside the huge Görlitzer Warenhaus in Saxony, with the Budapest hotel’s facade a miniature, the movie is so gorgeous that you should love it even if you don’t like it — that is, even if you think such an intricate construction overshadows all human feeling and ignores any hint of the fun, ache and mess of real lives.
Yes, as you can study in the film’s illustrated screenplay, each aural and visual element is infinitesimally orchestrated. In a funicular chase toward a monastery, the squeaking of the cable cars is in perfect tempo with the chanting of monks. (Alexandre Desplat’s score, heavy on the balalaikas, is worth enjoying up to and through the closing credits. Don’t leave early.) When Kovacs slams a sheaf of legal documents on his desk, one small roll of paper bounces impudently, and that grace note was surely intended too. But this is not just an amazing contraption, though it is that; it’s a real, funny, sad movie whose performances are as alert and finely composed as the decor. Anderson’s actors are not the mannequins of Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, inching down stately corridors like tuxedoed snails. In this doll house, the actors live and breathe, speak rapidly and urgently, do lots of cool and nasty stuff.
(SEE: A TIME gallery on the life and career of Alain Resnais)
Leading the company and setting its tone is Fiennes. From the start, his Gustave — suave, austere, sometimes frazzled — seizes the comic and emotional center. A brilliant, troubled man in a preposterous, essential job, he sees his mission as making people happy, and he does so with an efficiency that raises craft to art. So does Wes Anderson. Grand isn’t good enough a word for this Budapest Hotel. Great is more like it.